Our Cities need our Universities

UnivercitiesThere was a welcome report last week from the City Growth Commission on the importance of Universities for the UK’s largest Metros and what Universities and Cities  could do to increase their importance and linkages to their local economies. The link to the  ‘UniverCities: The Knowledge to Power UK Metros report‘ is here.

Let me say firstly I feel that the report is a little light. It is an overview report drawn from desk research, local hearings and a call for evidence. It is obviously influenced by its funders from the North East and the British Venture Capital Association in some of the examples given – although this doesn’t impact on the validity of its arguments. This ‘light’ approach has in the past caused the Commission to use out of date figures – hopefully this doesn’t apply in this case. Like many ‘policy’ documents nowadays it is dutifully short and full of infographics that are of questionable added value. So it is a trendy report designed to catch the eye – but whether it influences Universities and their Cities is another matter. In my view if it doesn’t influence it is a shame.

Reservations aside it does tackle a really important area of local economic development – so often ignored or compartmentalised. To be fair to the report it is not mean’t to be comprehensive. It itself terms the report as a provocation and calls for further work and research on this area.

Why is it important?

Well universities are increasingly important in the UK/EU and wider afield as ‘we’ (Policy makers/Governments/Councils) strive to move our economies up the value chain to enable us to be competitive and as knowledge increasingly becomes a factor of production. In a recent talked hosted by the RSA in Brussels Professor Karl Aiginger (Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO), looking at the future of Europe, talked about the dangers of going down a cost cutting approach to industrial competitiveness and he and other academics on the panel supported a new industrial policy; a high road growth path for the EU based on high skills and higher levels of research and innovation. Professor Frank Geels (Manchester University) also raised the need for more place based innovation – the role of place and innovation eco-systems have been so long under valued in our discussion of innovation policy.  So Cities  and Universities working together are key elements of taking this high road and both should take note of this key report and importantly it should lead to further research and place based policy innovation.


This report argues for a ‘range of policies that support universities to strategically co-ordinate internally and collaborate with other universities and partners externally……across a metro or region

Drawing from examples in the UK and from abroad (I really like the approach in Finland it describes where Universities are required to support and engage in local economic policy plans) it comes up with three areas where it recommends  such co-ordinated actions

1) Universities should optimise teaching and research for metro growth;

The idea being that research and teaching should feed off local strengths both to improve the impact of research locally but also to improve employability. It suggests the establishment of  ‘Metro Investment Funds for Higher Education’ to fund some of this locally focussed work. This would encourage HEIs to collaborate locally and given them an incentive to do so. (It makes the point elsewhere in the report that there are few such incentives currently and Universities are more likely to be driven to compete by current financing arrangements)

2) Develop programmes to support graduate retention and utilisation; It shows how graduates flock to London from across  the English regions and quotes research that shows that only 1 in 7 Universities made a significant contribution to graduate retention. It suggests amongst other things – golden handcuffs – financial support –  to encourage graduates to stay on and work/set up firms locally.


Relative flows of Graduates to London

3) Encouraging entrepreneurship from students, graduates and faculty: In terms of broad headings this is nothing new to many Universities but it has taken on board and developed the idea for graduate visas for core cities to enable overseas talent to stay on more easily after graduation. It also raises the issue of Universities themselves investing in start ups/spin offs etc. Universities have often been happy to use other funds such as EU funds/HEIF to invest in such programmes but they are perhaps the only ‘public’ institutions in our cities that have significant own resources currently and should go that step further by investing themselves in such activities.

Some further ideas

There is a lot more that could be said about innovation and Universities. I wish it talked more about; about the whole idea of Innovation Districts which I posted on recently here and also about smart specialisation. On this latter point a number of  Local Enterprise Partnerships with their Universities have undertaken or are undertaking a ‘Smart Specialisation’ approach to help focus their innovation funding. This is mentioned in passing in the report but this should bring real benefit – tieing in innovation activity into local strengths. There are significant resources available from the EU to fund this.

So an idea for further research might be to look at those areas of the country that have undertaken a thorough approach to Smart Specialisation such as Liverpool City Region (slides describing there approach can be downloaded here) where as I understand it they are close to knowing where they will invest their EU Innovation monies as the S3 exercise finishes shortly  – as opposed to the approach for instance taken in the West Midlands – (Greater Birmingham and the Black Country)  and I am sure elsewhere- where  I understand a partnership based but more pragmatic approach is developing.

On taking this forward – every Metro should look at how its Universities co-operate internally and locally to pursue a local economy agenda. I have previously questioned how well Greater Birmingham is engaged with the City Growth Commission and its policy research. This recently seems to be getting better but as an idea, why not for instance Greater Birmingham put itself forward as the next  stage in this research. To look at how well our Universities cooperate internally and externally for the good of the Greater Birmingham Metro and see where we can learn from elsewhere/what best practice exists here?


So in summary – this report is an important overview  and a call for further work which should be heeded and I myself must set aside my prejudices about its presentation.  As the author says replying to my comments about the infographics on twitter


I survived – hope you do.


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